Geopolitical implications of COVID-19 outbreak on Africa


Though the year 2020 in retrospect has been a turbulent one, the month of November will forever be fondly remembered for scientific breakthroughs and sophisticated advances toward viral remedies.

On Monday, November 9, 2020, Pfizer – the American multinational pharmaceutical company – announced to a weary public that their mRNA COVID-19 vaccine was 95% potent against the coronavirus. This was followed shortly by similar announcements form Moderna and other pharmaceutical firms across the globe.

The coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm starting early 2020 and brought the entire world to a standstill, unleashing a complex pandemic that left the human race suffocatinging in its grip. The weird diction of disease control agencies, such as lockdown, quarantine and safety protocols, became a public standard of controlling the disease. In Africa, like much of the globe, the pandemic was severely felt by many people – especially the poor.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the geopolitical implications of this virus that swept across the globe as it relates to Africa. The views shared in this article are mine; they are not exhaustive and certainly not conclusive.

Emergence of a virus

For many Africans, to the extent that they know anything about China, it is that the Chinese manufacture cheap products for the African market; and also give billion-dollar loans to African governments for inflated infrastructure projects on the continent. The terms and conditions of these loans are usually opaque, which suits many African governments just fine. Many Africans are appreciative or critical of the Chinese for these two reasons.

Unlike the many young African men and women struggling to get to Europe, and ready to cross the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea, fewver dream of going to China because Africa does not share any border with China. In my country Ghana, for instance, the Chinese enjoyed good relations with the country until they began engaging in illegal small scale artisanal mining, locally called ‘galamsey’.

It was therefore a shock to many across the continent when it was announced earlier in the year that a deadly pneumonia-like disease had broken out in Wuhan, China, and had suddenly taken over much of the world. The news was certainly not welcome. For many on the continent, they survive on daily returns from work – and any disease that prevents them from going to work will simply mean hunger for the family.

The disease however spread rapidlycross the world, and Africa like much of the world had to go into a lockdown. The process was chaotic, and the crunching effect on African economies was great considering the fragile structures of many such economies. This is why many African economies had to ease restrictions after brief spells of lockdown for their economies. The endemic poverty in many countries and the paucity of data on the poor meant the state could not even identify the extremely poor and vulnerable to support them during the lockdown.

This write-up seeks to identify some geopolitical implications of the pandemic on Africa, which will be placed under broad headings.

The Absence of global leadership

The first rude awakening many African leaders and Africans in general realised upon outbreak of the disease was the absence of global leadership. For many years, African countries could always count on the United States of America to come to their rescue whenever they got themselves into a conflict, pandemic or natural disaster. America set the tone and the rules, and strived to enforce them.

In 2014, when the deadly Ebola virus broke out in Africa, it took the intervention of America to mobilise partners across the world to come to the rescue of Africa. America allocated in excess of two billion dollars to defeat the pandemic and resuscitate the ailing economies of worst-affected countries. In 2020, it was not so. ‘America First’, which was the mantra of the ruling government, meant American interest alone. African leaders came to the realisation that the virus was deadly, and many who nursed hope in an American intervention were simply disillusioned. They had to mobilise their own resources and ingenuity to tackle the virus.

It became all too clear. For the first time in many years, there was a dearth of global leadership. America had abdicated its role as the promoter and enforcer of global norms. The vacuum created by America, unfortunately, could not be filled by either the Chinese or Europeans. It was an ‘unaccustomed-to feeling’ across the continent. The worst of it was watching the pandemic expose the cracks within the fabled healthcare system of the world’s superpower.

The absence of leadership was what moved some African leaders to call for African solutions to African problems rather than wait for American babysitting.

The Shift in power and influence from the West to East

The coronavirus pandemic altered the balance of power by driving power and influence from West to East. Yes, the virus started in China. Yes, the Chinese initial response to the virus was lacklustre. However, the Chinese and rest of the Asian Tigers were able to mobilise their resources and citizenry overnight, and brought the full weight of the state against the novel virus. In no time the pandemic was contained in the East, while it had just started raging like a deadly inferno in the West.

For the first time in many years, there almost seemed to be a dearth of competence in the West. America, bless its soul, eventually produced a vaccine for the world – but alas, over four hundred thousand of its citizens had succumbed to the virus. Much of the East and even Africa had handled the virus quite well, but the same could not be said of America and much of the West.

China was able to mobilise and produced millions of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for distribution across the world, while much of Europe and America slumped to their knees; absolutely devastated by the virus.

Economic activities in Asia came roaring back, with Chinese factories running at full throttle shortly after its containment of the virus. Stock markets across Asia rallied and indicators of economic growth surged. However, for much of Europe and America the same could not be said. Germany went into a brief recession after a long spell of economic growth; while Italy, Spain, the UK among others needed support.

The Irish journalist, Fintan O’toole, captured it better when he wrote: “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed toward the US until now: pity”.

Many Africans watched television mouths agape at the failure and decline of America and the triumphant rise of China. It became clear to everyone that the centre of power and influence has gradually shifted from West to the East, with China as the new global rival to America.

The rise of ‘Strongmen’ rulers

Another major geopolitical implication of COVID-19 in Africa has been the rise of ‘strongman’ rulers. Though the evidence points to the fact that countries led by women such as New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan among others generally handled the pandemic well, African leaders embraced the idea that strong men at the helm of affairs enforcing supposedly strict compliance to safety measures would bode well for the collective good of all. Elections across Africa within the COVID-19 era saw many ‘strongmen’ extending their rule by changing the constitutional provisions that barred them from contesting.

Mention could be made of Alassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast, Alpha Conde of Guinea and John Magufuli of Tanzania, among others. African leaders took full advantage of the vacuum created in the international space by the abdication of the US to throw human rights concerns out. Opposition party leaders, human right activists, journalists and a host of others were hounded by the leadership of their countries for daring to criticise their leaders.

In any case, African leaders watched in awe as the US president attacked journalists, human rights campaigners and opposition politicians on his twitter handle daily. If the leader of the free world can attack these ‘meddlesome’ people, why can’t African leaders? That set the stage for regression of human rights on the African continent, and enabled ‘strongmen’ to shine.

The fragility of African economies

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the fragility of many African economies. Many African economies that were said to be growing rapidly were suddenly hobbled by this virus. The lockdowns exposed the depth of poverty within Africa. Due to the paucity of data on the poor and vulnerable in African society, it became difficult for governments to cope with the many poor people crying for help during the lockdown.

African economies are basically natural resource export-led economies. These countries manufacture little and the main source of income for many of them has always been the export of natural resources such as gold, oil, diamond, cocoa among others. When the global economy went into lockdown, the demand for all these resources went down considerably – with oil prices falling drastically. This meant less money to meet the needs of Africa’s citizenry.

The lockdowns also meant no tourists coming to their countries – thereby reducing the flow of Foreign Direct Investments into their countries. This forced many of them to ease restrictions in order to save their people from hunger.

Way forward

African governments must learn so many lessons from the outbreak of coronavirus. The pandemic has exposed so many fissures in our society. Africa has been ‘lucky’ in that it’s been spared the main scourge of the pandemic – but steps have to be taken to better prepare for meeting similar pandemics should they arise. Here are some measures that can be taken into consideration:

  1. Diversification of the African economy from natural resources export to manufacturing and services.
  2. Nurturing home-grown talents and initiatives to address global pandemics.
  3. Massive investments in the health sectors of their respective countries.
  4. A balancing of the relationship between the East and West.
  5. A return to democracy, human rights and good governance 

The coronavirus pandemic that engulfed the world all year long has had so many effects on different facets of the world.

Of interest to me has been the geopolitical implications of this pandemic on Africa. The pandemic, as outlined above, has brought to fore among other things the absence of global leadership in the world since America abdicated its role to focus on its own interests. The centre of power and influence globally is also gradually shifting from West to East – and the pandemic accelerated that shift.

The virus also helped accelerate the rise of ‘strongman’ rulers in Africa with their wanton disregard for human rights. Finally, the pandemic revealed the fragility of Africa’s economies. African economies still largely depend on the export of natural resources without any significant manufacturing base.


>>>The writer can be reached via [email protected]  or +233 (0) 546507973

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